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I WONDER what it was like to be a Gentile (read non-Jew) and be told you were welcome to be part of the church of Jesus Christ.
The Gentiles had been outsiders to the church. Christianity had its origins in Judaism.
Jesus was Jewish. Jesus’ disciples were Jewish. Jesus attended a Jewish church (synagogue, temple). Jesus read the Jewish Scriptures. Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, in birth, in faith and in custom. Jesus’ disciples were Jewish.
So, the very first Christians were Jewish. To be Christian was to be Jewish. A person could be Jewish and not Christian but you could not be Christian without being Jewish. That’s the way Christianity started out.
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BUT THAT CHANGED. Peter had a dream. A sheet comes down from heaven. On the sheet are all sorts of unclean foods — unclean to Jewish people. This means there was no way to get certain foods clean enough to eat. No amount of scrubbing. No amount of water. No amount of prayers could make shrimp or hogs clean enough to eat. Peter dreams of this spread of unclean food. And God tells him to eat it.
Peter refuses because that’s religiously wrong. As the story goes, Peter finally realizes that God actually wants Peter to welcome and baptize the Gentile Cornelius and his family into the Christian faith. I wonder what it was like for Cornelius to be a Gentile who is now welcome as a Christian.
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THE APOSTLE PAUL SEES his calling, his purpose — to be “an apostle to the Gentiles.” From the beginning, Gentiles are his main audience. He welcomes them. The churches he establishes have both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in them. They are different in many ways. What they have in common is faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. (I wonder what it is like to be in a cross-cultural community of faith.)
That arrangement worked great for a while. Then new evangelists come to town. They tell the mixed-communities that they have it all wrong. There cannot be Gentile and Jew in the kingdom of God. Christ’s kingdom is big enough only for Jewish Christians. If Gentiles really, really, really want to be Christian they must become Jewish. And to become Jewish the men must go through the ritual of circumcision.
So, the Gentile Christians, who believe Jesus is Savior and have been baptized and have received the Holy Spirit and who have lived the faith, are suddenly told they cannot be accepted as they are. They must change. They must take on the culture of another people. They must mutilate their bodies. They must stop eating bacon.
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I WONDER WHAT IT’S LIKE to be told the welcome was a lie. The baptism was a cruel joke. By birth, by culture, by physiology you are not welcome, after all. I wonder what pain that brings to people to hear such devastating news.
I wonder how this news affected the faith communities. Did the attitude of the Jewish Christians change toward their Gentile brothers and sisters? Did they see them differently and side with their ethnic sisters and brothers? Did they side with the Gentile faithful? I wonder what divisions, distractions, hurts this proclamation brought to the churches of Galatia.
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PAUL KNOWS THIS is not good news. He writes this letter — the letter to the Galatians. Firmly, angrily, convincingly, Paul insists that in Christ all are welcome. He goes back 430 years before the law was given and talks of the faith of Abraham.
God treats us the way he treated Abraham and expects from us only what he expected from Abraham. God reaches out to us in compassion. I wonder how freeing that is to hear such good news.
Paul then takes on the three great cultural, religious and social divisions of the day. In Jewish culture the powerful, the influential, the elders, the leaders, the authorities are free Jewish males. In Greek circles the powerful are free Greek males.
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AGAINST GREAT ODDS, against popular culture, against history and tradition and against religious practice come these liberating words:
God shows no partiality. (Romans 2:11)
Christians today affirm that, at least in theory. There is neither Greek (Gentile) nor Jew. I doesn’t matter your skin color, your ethnicity, your background. I wonder what it’s like to be an ethnic minority and hear that you are loved by Christ.
In Christ there is neither free nor slave. It doesn’t matter your economics or social position. I wonder what it’s like to hear the good news that God blesses the poor, the confined, the limited.
In Christ there is neither male nor female. Gender doesn’t matter. I wonder what it’s like to hear that gender does not stand in the way of God’s using a person for his kingdom.
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